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The Behistun Inscription (also Bisitun or Bisutun, Modern Persian: بیستون ; Old Persian: Bagastana, meaning "the god's place or land") is a multi-lingual inscription located on Mount Behistunmarker in the Kermanshah Provincemarker of Iranmarker, near the city of Kermanshahmarker in western Iran.

The inscription includes three versions of the same text, written in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian. Babylonian was a later form of Akkadian: unlike Old Persian, they are Semitic languages. In effect, then, the inscription is to cuneiform what the Rosetta Stone is to Egyptian hieroglyphs: the document most crucial in the decipherment of a previously lost script.

Translation of the text was a multi-step and multi-national effort based on earlier work done on the decipherment of Old Persian script by Georg Friedrich Grotefend, who discovered that unlike Elamite and Babylonian texts, Old Persian text is a alphabetic. Later, Sir Henry Rawlinson, had the inscription transcribed in two parts, in 1835 and 1843. Rawlinson was able to translate the Old Persian cuneiform text in 1838, and the Elamite and Babylonian texts were translated by Rawlinson and others after 1843.

The inscription is approximately 15 metres high by 25 metres wide, and 100 metres up a limestone cliff from an ancient road connecting the capitals of Babylonia and Media (Babylonmarker and Ecbatanamarker). It is extremely inaccessible as the mountainside was removed to make the inscription more visible after its completion. The Old Persian text contains 414 lines in five columns; the Elamite text includes 593 lines in eight columns and the Babylonian text is in 112 lines. The inscription was illustrated by a life-sized bas-relief of Darius, holding a bow as a sign of kingship, with his left foot on the chest of a figure lying on his back before him. The prostrate figure is reputed to be the pretender Gaumata. Darius is attended to the left by two servants, and ten one-metre figures stand to the right, with hands tied and rope around their necks, representing conquered peoples. Faravahar floats above, giving his blessing to the king. One figure appears to have been added after the others were completed, as was (oddly enough) Darius' beard which is a separate block of stone attached with iron pins and lead.Bisotun is also one of the 80 treasures featured on Around the World in 80 Treasures presented by Dan Cruickshank.

In ancient history

The first historical mention of the inscription is by the Greek Ctesias of Cnidus, who noted its existence some time around 400 BC, and mentions a well and a garden beneath the inscription dedicated by Queen Semiramis of Babylon to Zeus (the Greek analogue of Ahura Mazda). Tacitus also mentions it and includes a description of some of the long-lost ancillary monuments at the base of the cliff, including an altar to Herakles. What has been recovered of them, including a statue dedicated in 148 BC, is consistent with Tacitus' description. Diodorus also writes of "Bagistanon" and claims it was inscribed by Semiramis.

After the end of the Persian Empire and its successors, and the lapse of cuneiform writing into disuse, the nature of the inscription was forgotten and fanciful explanations became the norm. For centuries, instead of being attributed to Darius — one of the first Persian kings — it was believed to be from the reign of Khosroes II of Persia — one of the last.

A legend began that it had been created by Farhad, a lover of Khosroes' wife, Shirin. The legend states that, exiled for his transgression, Farhad was given the task of cutting away the mountain to find water; if he succeeded, he would be given permission to marry Shirin. After many years and the removal of half the mountain, he did find water, but was informed by Khosroes that Shirin had died. He went mad, threw his axe down the hill, kissed the ground and died. It is told in the book of Khusraw and Shirin that his axe was made out of a pomegranate tree, and where he threw the axe a pomegranate tree grew with fruit that would cure the ill. Shirin was not dead, according to the story, and mourned upon hearing the news.


The inscription was noted by an Arab traveller, Ibn Hawqal, during the mid-900s, who interpreted the figures as a teacher punishing his pupils. It was not until 1598, when the Englishmanmarker Robert Sherley saw the inscription during a diplomatic mission to Persiamarker on behalf of Austriamarker, that the inscription first came to the attention of western European scholars. His party incorrectly came to the conclusion that it was a picture of the ascension of Jesus with an inscription in Greek.

Biblical misinterpretations by Europeans were rife for the next two centuries. French General Gardanne thought it showed Christ and his twelve apostles, and Sir Robert Ker Porter thought it represented the 12 tribes of Israel and Shalmaneser of Assyria. Italian explorer Pietro della Valle visited the inscription in the course of a pilgrimage in around 1621, and German surveyor Carsten Niebuhr visited in around 1764 while exploring Arabia and the Middle East for Frederick V of Denmark, publishing a copy of the inscription in the account of his journeys in 1777. Niebuhr's transcriptions were used by Georg Friedrich Grotefend and others in their efforts to decipher the Old Persian cuneiform script. Grotefend had deciphered ten of the 37 symbols of Old Persian by 1802.

During 1835, Sir Henry Rawlinson, an officer of the British East India Company army assigned to the forces of the Shah of Iran, began studying the inscription in earnest. As the town of Bisutun's name was anglicized as "Behistun" at this time, the monument became known as the "Behistun Inscription". Despite its relative inaccessibility, Rawlinson was able to scale the cliff and copy the Old Persian inscription. The Elamite was across a chasm, and the Babylonian four meters above; both were beyond easy reach and were left for later.

With the Persian text, and with about a third of the syllabary made available to him by the work of Georg Friedrich Grotefend, Rawlinson set to work on deciphering the text. Fortunately, the first section of this text contained a list of the same Persian kings found in Herodotus in their original Persian forms as opposed to Herodotus's Greek transliterations, for example Darius is given as the original "Dâryavuš" instead of the Hellenized "Δαρειος". By matching the names and the characters, Rawlinson was able to decipher the type of cuneiform used for Old Persian by 1838 and present his results to the Royal Asiatic Society in Londonmarker and the Société Asiatique in Parismarker.

Surprisingly, the Old Persian text was copied and deciphered before the recovery and copying of the Elamite and Babylonian inscriptions had even been attempted. In the interim, Rawlinson spent a brief tour of duty in Afghanistanmarker, returning to the site in 1843. He first crossed a chasm between the Persian and Elamite scripts by bridging the gap with planks, subsequently copying the Elamite inscription. He was then able to find an enterprising local boy to climb up a crack in the cliff and suspend ropes across the Babylonian writing, so that papier-mâché casts of the inscriptions could be taken. Rawlinson, along with scholars Edward Hincks, Julius Oppert, William Henry Fox Talbot, and Edwin Norris, either working separately or in collaboration eventually deciphered these inscriptions, leading eventually to the ability to read them completely. The ability to read Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian greatly promoted the development of modern Assyriology.

Later Research and Activity

Later expeditions, in 1904 sponsored by the British Museummarker and led by Leonard William King and Reginald Campbell Thompson and in 1948 by George G. Cameron of the University of Michiganmarker, obtained photographs, casts and more accurate transcriptions of the texts, including passages that were not copied by Rawlinson. It also became apparent that rainwater had dissolved some areas of the limestone in which the text is inscribed, while leaving new deposits of limestone over other areas, covering the text.

In 1938 the inscription became of interest to the Nazi German think tank "Ahnenerbe", although research plans were cancelled due to the onset Word War II.

The monument later suffered some damage from invading Allied soldiers using it for target practice during World War II.

In 1999, Iranian archeologists began the documentation and assesment of damages to the site incurred during the 20th century. Malieh Mehdiabadi, who was project manager for the effort described a photogrameteric process by which 2-dimensional photos were taken of the inscriptions using two cameras and were later transmuted into 3-D images.

In recent years, Iranian archaeologists have been undertaking conservation works. The site became a UNESCOmarker World Heritage Site in 2006. [420]

Other historical monuments in Behistun complex

The site covers an area of 116 hectares. Archeological evidence indicates that this region became a human shelter 40,000 years ago. There are 18 historical monuments other than the inscription of Darius the great in the Behistun complex that have been registered in the Iranian national list of historical sites. Some of them are:

Image:Seleucid statue of Hercules 2.jpg|Statue of Herakles in Behistun complexImage:Godarz.jpg|Bas relief of Mithridates II of Parthia and bas relief of Gotarzes II of Parthia and Sheikh Ali khan Zangeneh text endowment.In the first image Herakles with curly hair and a beard rests on the lion skin. Beside him an olive tree is seen, carved on the wall while a quiver full of arrows is hanging from it and a club is also put near that. Behind the head of Herakles an inscription in seven lines and in old Greek is written on a smooth space with a frame similar to Greek temples. According to this inscription, the statue was carved in 139 BC on the occasion of a conquest for Seleucid Greeks (Demetrius II Nicator) against Parthian (Mithridates I of Parthia) [that later changed to defeat of the Seleucids].

The second image is a bas relief of Mithridates II of Parthia: this was carved between (123-110 BC) and represents Parthian king Mithridates and four of his satraps who are respecting the king. Bas relief of Gotarzes II of Parthia :shows the conquest of that king over Meherdates,an Arsacid prince, who lived in Romemarker. An inscription in Greek is seen on the left side of top outer frame of the relief. Sheikh Ali khan Zangeneh text endowment: According to this text,written in Sloth calligraphy, Sheikh Ali khan Zangeneh, a local ruler of 17th century, dedicates four shares (out of six) of his properties in Ghareh-vali and Chambatan (local villages) for Sadaats (descendants of the prophet Mohammad) and two remaining shares for the Bisotoun Safavid caravansarai.

See also


  1. Lead and lead poisoning in antiquity‎ - Page 160
  2. Documentation of Behistun Inscription Nearly Complete
  3. Documentation of Behistun Inscription Nearly Complete


  • Adkins, Lesley, "Empires of the Plain: Henry Rawlinson and the Lost Languages of Babylon", St. Martin's Press, New York, 2003.
  • Rawlinson, H.C., Archaeologia, 1853, vol. xxxiv, p. 74
  • Thompson, R. Campbell. "The Rock of Behistun". Wonders of the Past. Edited by Sir J. A. Hammerton. Vol. II. New York: Wise and Co., 1937. (p. 760–767) [421]
  • Cameron, George G. "Darius Carved History on Ageless Rock". National Geographic Magazine. Vol. XCVIII, Num. 6, December 1950. (p. 825–844) [422]
  • Rubio, Gonzalo. "Writing in another tongue: Alloglottography in the Ancient Near East." In Margins of Writing, Origins of Cultures (ed. Seth Sanders. 2nd printing with postscripts and corrections. Oriental Institute Seminars, 2. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 33-70. [423]

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